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Sergeant Dwayne Miller’s breath came quick and his jaw clenched as he began relating a story to me at a combat outpost in northern Helmand Province, Afghanistan. We sat in the moon dust on camp chairs that some folks from my hometown had sent for the Fourth of July and which I had pushed up by convoy.

Sergeant Miller’s squad had been attacked with small arms fire while on patrol near a village bazaar. Several of his Marines were hit, and the insurgents fled into the crowd. After helping to jumpstart some lifesaving first aid to a critically wounded fellow Marine, he had to take charge in the chaos.

“Chaps, I wanted to just start shooting into the crowd, in the direction of the attack, but I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it,” he told me two days later. “There was a group of old men, and some kids not far away. I leveled my rifle, and some scenarios raced through my mind, but the part of me that was seeing red just had to give way to reality.

“This is combat, and I’m a killer. And I was raging. But I’m not that kind of killer. I mean, I’m a killer, but I’m not an animal. I’m a human being. And I’m a sergeant of Marines. If I don’t discriminate targets, my Marines aren’t going to discriminate.”

As he related this, his voice was calm, but his body was tense, an incongruence often seen after exposure to combat. But what caught my attention most was his use of the word discriminate. This young man, a twenty-three-year-old, sleep-deprived amateur rapper sitting covered in dirt with a loaded rifle thousands of miles from his home, was describing moral restraint in war in the words of St. Augustine, a theologian who lived and taught sixteen centuries ago.

To the reader versed in the ethics of war, this might not seem as amazing as I am making it out to be. After all, Augustine’s just war theory, including the principle of discrimination of targets, is codified to this day in the American law of war and in all local rules of engagement where American soldiers are authorized to use deadly force. It’s even included in the United Nations Charter—without reference to Augustine or Thomas Aquinas, of course—and meant to set guidelines for just action in war for almost two hundred countries across the world.

I do think it is amazing, however, and some more background on Sergeant Miller might help me explain why. Dwayne Miller was born to unwedded parents whose relationship ended without ever really beginning. He never knew his father, and suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his mother’s various boyfriends, who also on occasion beat and even raped her in front of him.

Although at times he bonded with coaches in middle school and high school, he claims never to have had a long-standing positive role model or moral exemplar. He says he cheated on tests and quizzes throughout high school and had difficulty remaining faithful in romantic relationships.

After working for a couple of years at a convenience store, Miller saw a recruiter in the food court of his local mall and left his morally and emotionally toxic environment by enlisting in the Marine Corps.

Granted, we can’t pass judgment on someone’s moral foundations from his social history alone. On the other hand, would you expect every twenty-three-year-old from this kind of background to be capable of making such a mature, split-second decision of self-control and courageous restraint in the face of a frustrating and deadly enemy?

Dwayne Miller acted from his conscience. His conscience was formed by Augustine’s teaching on war, but he didn’t receive this formation in a parochial school or at a seminary. His formation came rather in the bellows of Marine Recruit Training at Parris Island, South Carolina. It was there that he began to learn the law of war, and some core values, and went through use-of-force scenarios requiring him to form habits in acting out justly in response to various threats.

One of my favorite Marine officers likes to say that we are in the business of “throwing young men and women head first into the worst places on planet Earth, with nothing but honor, courage, and commitment as a safety net.” I think conscience is also a safety net. Most of our youngest generation of Marines, who in large part have grown up morally disoriented, in a culture deeply saturated with diverse and competing values, have found access to such a formation, and in so doing have also found a moral voice.

This transmission of a foundational Christian morality in war-fighting, especially through the principles of discrimination of targets and proportionality of force, is not overtly Christian at all, and yet in Dwayne’s case it was enough to effect a living connection between his moral behavior in combat and the moral teachings of the Church. The sergeant could not tell me one single thing about Augustine when I asked him, but it was nonetheless this early Christian bishop who helped him keep his humanity in the face of the intense external and internal conflict he experienced as a Marine leader.

Sergeant Miller is not some kind of unwitting Christian warrior. My point is that we should not underestimate the powerful transmission of Christian moral teaching in a largely post-Christian society. In the case of this squad of young Marines last year in Afghanistan, this teaching saved some innocent Afghan lives, and also saved the Marines from the deep psychological, emotional, and spiritual fragmentation men can suffer after killing the innocent.

I meet many atheists in foxholes today, contrary to the idea coined during the Second World War. It is my calling, among other things, to represent the love of Christ to the atheists and agnostics in our foxholes. When I find these elements of the Christian tradition alive and well in them, guiding them, staying their hands, protecting their hearts and minds and souls even beyond their consciousness, it fills me with hope and joy and gratitude.

Sometimes I cry. I cry because I love them, and because it reminds me that the prayers of the saints like Augustine are holding all of us up together, even in a valley of the shadow of death.

David Alexander is an Orthodox priest serving in the United States Navy Chaplain Corps.

Sergeant Miller’s name has been changed.